Does the smartphone world need a BlackBerry keyboard in 2018? That's the biggest question posed by the arrival of the new BlackBerry Key2, an otherwise unremarkable handset running Android 8.1. New Atlas has been playing around with the phone for a week, and here's what we think.
Any appraisal of the Key2 really has to focus on that physical keyboard down at the bottom. Once upon a time considered the gold standard for putting text into a phone, it's since been superseded by the far more convenient and flexible touchscreen keyboard.
So what's it like trying to use one in 2018? In short, rather awkward. Pecking away at individual letters is smooth enough, but as soon as we needed a number, or a special character, there was a good five seconds of trying to find it and then working out the key combination to bring it up on screen.
Admittedly, some of this might be muscle memory – a decade of touchscreen tapping takes a long time to unlearn. We're prepared to admit that, given time, the experience of using an actual proper keyboard on a phone might become much more intuitive than we found it in the first seven days.
That said though, it seems unlikely that iPhone and Android users would want to take the time to adapt. It's perhaps only the most hardcore BlackBerry loyalists who are going to want to put the Key2 on their shopping lists.
Indeed, BlackBerry Mobile admits this is very much aimed at those who need to get through a lot of texting rather than a lot of media watching. To be fair, typing on the keyboard actually feels rather nice – the keys have a decent amount of travel and feel well put together. It's just that we find flicking between characters, numbers, and emojis on a touchscreen keyboard far more intuitive, and just as accurate.
The presence of that keyboard cuts the screen size down to 4.5 inches too, so you're losing a lot of screen real estate for not much benefit. This isn't really a phone for watching Netflix, or browsing the web, or playing games, although it can do all of that too.
The Key2 does offer one upgrade over the keyboard seen on this phone's predecessor, the Key One: there's now a Speed Key, which you can use to set up shortcuts to launch specific apps (so Speed Key+S could launch Slack, for instance). It's useful, but not a game-changer.
We've spent so long discussing the keyboard because otherwise this is very much a standard Android handset. The Snapdragon 660 chipset and 6 GB of RAM offer some solid mid-range performance, while the 1080 x 1620 pixel resolution screen is perfectly usable and sharp (albeit a little small).
That sense of being perfectly adequate extends to the dual lens, 12 MP + 12 MP camera around the rear too – it's capable of getting some fine shots in good lighting, and even coped well with all but the lowest-lit scenes, most of the time. It's not going to match an iPhone or Pixel in terms of results, but it won't let you down.
This being a device with BlackBerry heritage, there are some extra security features to appeal to business users, including BlackBerry's DTEK software – it gives you an overall security rating for your phone, and promises to alert you to potential security problems as early as possible. There's also a private locker, a password-protected fault for stuffing away extra-sensitive files and web bookmarks.
To give credit where it's due to BlackBerry Mobile – the spin-off of BlackBerry proper, now under the ownership of TCL, which has made this phone – it's a well-built, solid handset. We like the textured backing, which is easy to grip, and though the design is a little blocky, this feels like a premium device. It comes in black, which is the model we had, or black with a silver trim.
Battery life impresses too, perhaps due to those mid-range components and smaller screen. We regularly had over 50 percent left at the end of the day – even if you factor in battery degradation as the phone gets older, it should easily last you through one day and well into a second most of the time.
Really though, it's hard to get away from that keyboard, which at least is something different in a smartphone market where everything looks very similar. Its inclusion is either going to be the reason you put down your money straight away for the Key2, or the reason you give the phone a very wide berth.
TCL and BlackBerry Mobile are no doubt well aware that they're aiming for a niche market rather than trying to compete with sales of the Samsung Galaxy, and if the idea of the keyboard appeals, the rest of the phone is going to impress you well enough as well – it's just not for us. The BlackBerry Key2 will be available to preorder on June 29 for US$649 unlocked.Product page:
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